Aesthetics and Well-Being in Science: An Empirical Assessment

Brandon Vaidyanathan, The Catholic University of America

Scientists are often seen as the epitome of cold, dispassionate rationality. Yet the practice of science is often shot through with profound experiences of wonder, awe, and beauty. While prominent celebrity scientists like Richard Dawkins wax eloquent about how the aesthetic potential of science can rival the finest music and poetry, we know little about how characteristic such experiences are in the actual work of scientists and what their effects might be. The present paper addresses this gap by drawing on a novel international study of the role of aesthetics in science, comprising surveys with physicists and biologists in the US, UK, Italy, and India (N=3,442), and in-depth interviews with these scientists (N=215). Our research finds that scientists encounter beauty, awe, and wonder in the workplace on a regular basis. Using a multidimensional measure of well-being, the Harvard Flourishing Index, we find that more frequent aesthetic experiences at work are associted with higher levels of well-being. Qualitative interviews also illustrate ways in which aesthetic experiences at work contribute to scientists’ sense of satisfaction and motivation. Such findings explain why most scientists we studied consider science to be a calling or vocation that they consider one of the most meaningful aspects of their lives. However, our results also caution us that the expectation that work should be motivated by such intrinsic satisfaction may be used as a means of exploitation even in elite professions such as science. Our findings raise questions about the promises and perils of aesthetic experience in relation to well-being at work.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 203. Envisioning Knowledge: Aesthetics, Science, and Publics